Little is notable about 171st Place in Covington. It's a short street in a neighborhood occupied by modest homes owned by plumbers, cops and teachers. A neighborhood where pickup...
Little is notable about 171st Place in Covington. It’s a short street in a neighborhood occupied by modest homes owned by plumbers, cops and teachers. A neighborhood where pickup trucks are parked in driveways and four-wheelers sit in garages.
The Graham family lives on this street, in a tri-level home on half an acre, most of it a back yard with a knotty lawn, a trampoline, a play set and a doghouse.
George, 45, is a carpenter for a local hospital; Ruth, 44, works at home. The kids, ages 5 to 26, nearly all attend school.
“I always wanted seven kids,” says Ruth.
She got her seven and two more. There’s an athlete, a computer whiz, a teenager dreaming of Harvard Law School, and two grown daughters hoping to earn their college degrees.
Every one of them is adopted.
The odds seem to conspire against large families more so against families like Ruth’s. How many of the children will actually be able to go to college? Get good jobs? Create well-adjusted families? Be happy?
Two of their children have learning disabilities; two suffered from abuse; five have been diagnosed with ADHD, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
All of them were taken initially by the state or voluntarily given up by parents who couldn’t stop drinking, hitting, shooting up, or simply couldn’t cope with life’s pressures.
If they followed a pattern typical of those in the foster system, two-thirds wouldn’t graduate high school, and most wouldn’t get a college degree, according to a 2003 study of foster-system alumni by Casey Family Programs and Harvard Medical School. They’d earn a third less than U.S. median wage, and they would be four times more likely to go on welfare than the general population.
Most foster children never get a healthy support system or adults they can count on year in and year out. They never have family.
Enter the Grahams. They are a typical family, just not a traditional one. In some ways they’re stronger collectively, their broken pieces are bonded by extra doses of faith, resolve, tolerance and compassion.
Along the way they’ve been helped by their church and by social agencies such as Treehouse, a Seattle organization that helps foster kids with things not covered by the state social system. The nonprofit is among a dozen groups receiving support this year from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.
It pays for things like dance lessons and sports-team membership. It offers tutoring. And in the Grahams’ case, it’s helping at least two children realize their dreams of a college education.
Rescuing a little boy
In 1984, a mother battling alcohol addiction dropped off Tyson, her 3-year-old, with friends, asking them to baby-sit. She didn’t return to reclaim the child for a year. Later, the couple got another call, this time from San Diego. Could they take Tyson again? They arrived to find the little boy, then 4, foraging for food in a trash bin.
George and Ruth had tried for years to have children, without luck. They were in their early 20s when their friends, the couple who rescued Tyson, suggested they might want to take in the boy as a foster child. It wouldn’t be easy; he was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that would stunt his development and forever make it difficult for him to understand the consequences of his actions.
The Grahams gladly accepted, becoming licensed foster parents and then adopting Tyson, beginning a lifetime of parenting children with special needs where every temper tantrum, homework problem, sibling spat carried an undercurrent of past wounds.
Other foster kids and other adoptions followed, including a baby born to a heroin addict and two infants of mothers with mental disorders. Two of the Grahams’ children, Shantelle and Jessie, were taken in as teenagers.
Jessie started taking care of her alcoholic mother when she was 5. By age 10 she was largely on her own, staying with friends for days at a time. Her first foster placement, in a home run by a single woman, was a scene out of Dickens, as Jessie tells it. (Ruth Graham confirms the accounts.)
The foster mother was physically and verbally abusive to the five girls in her care, Jessie says. She forced a 5-year-old to eat her own vomit, broke bottles over Jessie’s shoulders and chopped her hair off in a fit of rage.
When Jessie arrived at the Grahams’ home at age 14, she found a foster sister who had lived an almost parallel life. Shantelle had entered foster care at age 12 after a fight with her mother, herself a former foster child with an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Like Jessie, Shantelle bounced between foster homes, generally well behaved but fiercely guarded.
Until she met the Grahams. From the beginning, they accepted her. They honored her individuality. They encouraged her to talk and, if necessary, to cry.
Shantelle reacted with stony reserve.
“I didn’t call them Mom and Dad. I didn’t want to hug them. I didn’t want to say, ‘I love you.’ “
Love and respect
George and Ruth Graham didn’t have a handbook for raising children bruised by cruelty, neglect or the lingering effects of a chemical addiction.
They just knew some things to be true: No one is unlovable, and everyone deserves respect.
“We’re to be their parents and not their friends,” Ruth says, “which means we need to role-model appropriate behavior. We need to model respect. We need to model that we care about what they feel, we care about what they think. And we may make a decision they don’t agree with.”
Two of the Grahams’ children, including Tyson, now 23, are on their own. That leaves seven still at home, occupying the six-bedroom house that George converted from a three-bedroom.
The parents’ two incomes plus an adoption-support subsidy from the state are barely enough to cover the monthly household expenses, not to mention extra money for school activities.
“Every time we make a Costco run it’s an average of $400 to $500,” says George.
His building expertise he recently remodeled the kitchen cuts costs. But the family still has to shell out for things like football equipment for Caleb and computer equipment for Seth. They can’t provide the dirt bikes, the ski-lift tickets and the trips to Disneyland that their kids’ friends get. And their dream of college for their children is largely just that.
That hasn’t stopped the kids from wishing. In a poem she wrote for school, Janae, 15, described herself as the “firmly opinionated and deeply compassionate daughter of George and Ruth Graham who would like to be a lawyer, get into Princeton or Harvard, and would like to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Jessie, now 21, and Shantelle, 26, have their own college goals, partially realized with the help of Treehouse.
Through the nonprofit’s Coaching-to-College program Jessie got a $3,400 scholarship and help applying for federal financial aid to attend a four-year college. She wants to teach special education.
A college degree, she said, would be both a symbol of what she’s overcome and a thank-you gift to her parents, whom she “put through the wringer” as a teen.
“In all aspects, my parents are a gift from God. They saved me.”
Likewise, Shantelle is halfway through her four-year college education. Treehouse has helped her with more than $9,000 in support in the last few years. She earned an associate’s degree, is working as a teller for Washington Mutual, and plans to transfer to a four-year college to get her degree in occupational therapy.
In one regard, Shantelle has come the furthest of all the Graham children. After a childhood full of abuse and mistrust, after six years of being the Grahams’ foster child, it hit her on a church trip to Arizona: This was indeed a real family her family.
When she returned from that trip, she had something to tell George and Ruth: She wanted to be adopted.
“My mom was crying. She said it was an answered prayer.”
At age 21, Shantelle officially became a Graham.
Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or firstname.lastname@example.org